Spotlight on Learn Foundations: Building the foundations for a better student experience online

Participants at Learn usability session

In this post, Stuart Nicol, Head of the Educational Design and Engagement (EDE) section in Information Services Group, introduces the ‘Spotlight on Learn Foundations‘ series. This series will feature posts throughout the next few years from colleagues in Schools who are using the new Learn Foundations structure, which aims to make courses in our VLE more usable and consistent for students …

For almost everyone who is learning, teaching or supporting teaching on on-campus courses at the University, using Learn, our institutional virtual learning environment (VLE), will be a very familiar experience. Over 5000 courses have a presence in Learn every year.

Clearly the VLE is a key part of our everyday teaching and learning experience, and the University is investing in Learn through a programme of work called VLE Excellence. One strand has already completed over the summer: to move Learn from self-hosted to a cloud-based service. Hosted by Blackboard, and in line with what many other universities do, this will mean patches and updates can be applied as they become available and with less need for downtime. What does that mean for us, the users? It means a more robust, resilient, and secure learning environment for everyone at the University.

The second project is perhaps even more ambitious and will run over three years. Learn Foundations aims to make all of the courses in the VLE more usable and consistent, with the aim of providing a better student experience in the online teaching and learning space.

The online space can sometimes be overlooked for on-campus courses, but it is where students will often be expected to submit assignments, receive feedback, access lecture recordings and resource lists, or engage with materials and discussions in blended approaches to teaching. Although there are many good examples of course design, the lack of a consistent institutional template means that students who study across subject areas, schools, and sometimes colleges, will inevitably find that their course-specific resources are placed in different folders, and even called different things. Agreeing on an institution-wide approach to basic course structure, and course terminology, will help to alleviate needless confusion caused by basic inconsistencies. It will also mean that there is still the required flexibility to structure good teaching within courses. In fact, it means that more attention can be paid to the teaching elements without having to think about where to put links and resources that are a basic requirement.

We have just completed year one of the project. The team have worked really hard with colleagues across the University, and have migrated six Schools and a Deanery over the summer: HCA, Business School, Divinity, Geosciences, Centre for Open Learning and the Deanery of Clinical Sciences. How do we know that we’ve designed the right template, and found the correct terminology? We consulted widely engaging staff and students.
We also engaged our expert team of usability experts to conduct usability research to give us an evidence base for the decisions we made. The design of information and layout in any online platform follows well established usability norms. We have designed a robust programme of training to ensure that staff who design and deliver courses are well supported to do so.

We employed 10 students over the summer to migrate courses, and, in the process, gathered a lot of data about the courses we migrated. We uncovered a level detail that we have never before been able to delve into. We have generated insights that can tell us more about how accessible our courses are, and what types of activities students are engaged in. This is useful knowledge for any course or programme considering a redesign. Our learning design experts provided the learning activity themes against which we were able to code data about courses. A virtuous cycle could see course teams able to use this data as input to sessions such as Edinburgh Learning Design Roadmap (ELDeR), a service provided in partnership by ISG and IAD, as part of reviewing and redesigning the curriculum.

The Learn Foundations student interns (summer 2019). Back Row: Sabrina, Olavo, Simon, Magda, Felicia, Triin. Front Row: Jakub, Anushka, Mellisa, Hannah.

Over the coming two years, we aim to engage the rest of the University and migrate all courses, where appropriate, to the new baseline structure. Blackboard Learn for us at Edinburgh will become the platform PLUS the unique Edinburgh template and terminology. It will be an ongoing job to make sure the quality of our courses remains high. It won’t stop with the end of Learn Foundations. The project will improve the Learn service we provide going forward into the future, and we look forward to working with colleagues across the University to ensure all Edinburgh courses use the online space in the best and most effective ways possible.

In this ‘Spotlight on…‘ series, we will hear from colleagues that we have worked with over the last year. They will share their thoughts and experiences of working together to improve their courses in Learn. I hope you find their reflections interesting and helpful.

Stuart Nicol

Stuart is the Head of the Educational Design and Engagement (EDE) section in Information Services Group. EDE are responsible for delivering a number of services to the University, including: advice, consultancy, and training for learning technologies; Learning Design (ELDeR); support for online learning, including MOOCs; and support for open education resources. Having worked as a learning technologist for over 20 years Stuart joined the University of Edinburgh in 2007, initially in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, moving to what is now EDE in 2011. He has a master’s degree in Digital Education from the University of Edinburgh and continues to have an interest in critical approaches to open education and practice.

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